Caesar : life of a colossus

by Adrian Keith Goldsworthy

Hardcover, 2006




New Haven : Yale University Press, 2006.


Tracing the extraordinary trajectory of Caesar's life from birth through assassination, historian Goldsworthy covers not only Caesar's accomplishments as charismatic orator, conquering general, and powerful dictator, but also lesser-known chapters during which he was high priest of an exotic cult, captive of pirates, seducer not only of Cleopatra but also of the wives of his two main political rivals, and a rebel condemned by his own country. Goldsworthy realizes the full complexity of Caesar's character, places his subject firmly within the context of Roman society in the first century B.C., and shows why his political and military leadership continues to resonate some two thousand years later.--From publisher description.

User reviews

LibraryThing member la2bkk
Goldworthy's work is comprehensive, accurate and balanced, offering the finest examination of Caesar's incredibly rich and astounding life. The book is long, over 500 pages, however as the author notes... how could a shorter version capture the multitude of events and accomplishments that comprise Rome's greatest citizen?

The preeminent biography of Caesar. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ailinel
Goldsworthy pulls readers into the politics, military endeavors, and aspects of daily life for member of the Roman Republic’s upper class. This biography provides context and works to present Caesar’s life in its correct time and place without evaluating it through the lens of modern thought. The biography contains several key sections, the first dealing with Marius, Sulla, and the political climate that Caesar was born into. The book goes on to cover his youth and ascension of the corpus honorum, his time as consul, his governorship of Gaul, and finally the Civil War and dictatorship.
Goldsworthy is particularly diligent in describing the battles and campaigns, with numerous references to historical works and archaeological finds that tie in to what he is describing. The book also contains a number of helpful charts showing deployments prior to and during various battles.
This biography is a must read for the Roman history aficionado and is highly recommended for anyone interested in learning a little more about one of the most significant names from ancient Rome.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Goldsworthy's Caesar is an extraordinarily well-written one-volume biography. Some who have sniffed that Goldsworthy's treatment is not comprehensive enough miss the point - this is supposed to be a one-volume biography of Caesar and the book is 519 pages as is without chasing after the disputes between Crassus and Pompey. The author shows remarkable discipline in not wandering off down the many enticing pathways offered by the late Roman Republic. Goldsworthy specifically cautioned at the beginning that he intends to stay focused on Caesar and Caesar alone and that is what he does.

Writing a biography of Caesar presents the formidable challenge of humanizing the subject - much like writing about Napoleon or Robert E. Lee. They are the 'marble men' in Shelby Foote's phrasing. Goldsworthy succeeds admirably in this regard. He repeatedly cautions the reader not to regard the events of Caesar's life as inevitable. The reader gets the sense of Caesar as a man who strove to succeed above all else, but could have failed.

His lively writing style paints an engaging portrait of Caesar (much more so than Anthony Everritt's 'Augustus', for example). Crisply described battle scenes give the reader a good sense of what happened and why, whether against the Gauls at Alesia or Pompey at Pharsalus.

Contrary to some other reviewers, I found that Goldsworthy's background as a preeminent military historian serves him well. At Caesar's most successful he was above all a Roman general and spent most of the last 15 years of his life fighting wars first against Rome's enemies and later against other Romans. True, Caesar was nearly 40 before he embarked on the victories that made his place in history, but we remember him for those years as a military leader not for his role as praetor or pontifex maximus.

A remarkable one-volume biography. I'd give it more than 5 stars if I could. Highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member billiecat
Probably the most engaging biography I've read, on this or any other subject. Goldsworthy's colossus of a book is tightly focused on its subject, but still gives a better picture of the end of the Roman Republic than the much more pop-history "Rubicon." As one would expect from the author of "The Punic Wars," "Roman Warfare" and "The Complete Roman Army", Goldsworthy thoroughly explores and explicates Caesar the General; but he also gives a complete and balanced picture of Caesar the politician as well. By doing so, he shows how war and politics were two sides of the same coin in the Late Republic - indeed, war in Rome was simply politics by other means (Cicero's greatest weakness as a Roman politician was undoubtedly his lack of military skill).

One of the greatest strengths of this book is how it manages to put Caesar into his time and place - nobody in 30 B.C. knew that Caesar would become the figure we think of him as now, and so there was nothing fore-ordained or inevitable about his rise and fall. Goldsworthy is also careful to highlight where sources are contradictory, unclear, or inadequate - something that lends a historian more authority in my eyes than bald assertions could ever do. By drawing attention to these uncertainties, Goldsworthy illuminates a clearer understanding of Caesar and his times for the reader.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Eloquent and incredibly well-researched biography of a somewhat familiar historical figure. Provides an astonishing amount of new insights about this multifaceted and absorbing person.
LibraryThing member ddonahue
Some of the battles are described nearly as well as, say ap bac in "A Bright Shining Lie" Superb book from all angles, social, military, and historical. Brings one back to High School and translating "Caesar's Gallic Wars". I'm buying one for my son's latin teacher.
LibraryThing member Elsieb
I'm still only about half way though this. It's more military focused than I thought (I tend to prefer the social history rather than the military/political) but I still enjoy it when I dip into it. The man could fit a battle, that's for sure.
LibraryThing member questbird
I enjoyed this biography of Caesar, especially his early life, about which I knew nothing. Mr Goldsworthy describes with clarity the turbulent politics and ambitious personalities of the time at the end of the Roman Republic. I had heard of people such as Cato, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero, Brutus, Scipio, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, but this book puts them into the context of Caesar's life without allowing the many details and side debates to detract from the main focus, Caesar himself.

Descriptions of political motivations of the various players were very interesting. The Gallic wars took up quite a chunk of the book. I was less interested in these, partially because (as noted by Goldsworthy) virtually the only historical sources for this period are written by Caesar himself. I also found the epilogue somewhat watery and hedged (it is written by a historian after all). However overall it was a clearly written book which gives a very good insight into the man Caesar and his time.
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LibraryThing member Joycepa
I found this book incredibly dull. Well researched--no question that almost all of the known material on Caesar is summarized here--but does it have to be so boring? While reading it, I found myself constantly comparing it wih Colleen McCullough's 5 volume fictional work on Caesar; IMHO, her books are infinitely preferable to this one volume. Same material, better read.

For someone who is supposedly a military historian, it is beyond my power to understand how Goldsworthy could make the Gallic Wars sound so dull. It appeared to me thathe was bored by them. He seemed to pick up interest in the Civil War. I found his summary decent.

For me, a major problem was the style of writing--mostly simple, declarative sentences. Such monotony along with the appearance of a lack of real interest in his material made for heavy going.

Another very subjective complaint I have about the book is a lack of a point of view. I'm surprised that in 2007 someone can still make the statement in print of strivign to be entirely objective. That's a vain hope! No one is. In doing so, his material loses life. There is a saying in opera, "strong opinions, strong production". I think it applies equally well to writing.

Granted, any author of fiction has far, far more leeway than a historian. But McCullough brings her characters to life, which made it far easier for me to remember the material! Also, you can learn far, far more about Roman life, culture, institutions, etc from her glossaries which beat anything I have ever seen in novels.

Any really good general history ought to inspire the reader to go to original sources. I can't imagine desiring to read Caesar's Commentaries after reading Goldsworthy. Yet they are utterly fascinating.

The only reason why I didn't give this book the lowest rating is that it is useful to have the material all inone place. And it certainly helps to put one to sleep at night--a good cure for insomnia.
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LibraryThing member mgreenla
A highly recommended biography of Caesar. Goldsworthy does an excellent job of fitting a life of Caesar into one book. He clearly spells out what is and isn't known about the subject, and provides a reasoned view.
LibraryThing member Meggo
Detailed, well researched, and thought provoking. Not a good book to read in bed, as it's heavy and the hard cover can cause injury, it's still well worth the effort. A good addition to any Roman historian's collection, even though the aftermath is somewhat lightly glossed over.
LibraryThing member robeik
Although we know that Julius Caesar's life came to an abrupt end, reading the long book emphasied how abrupt it was. Caesar had packed so much into his life, things appeared to have settled down, and then with what appears to be little preparation and thought, a group of senators selfishly put an end to that life. This episode fills just a few pages of this 500 page book. The rest is spent on his early life as he positions himself, quite cheekily, for promotion. A bulk of the book is spent on his time on Gaul, where some of the details of troop movements in battle do tend to be a bit tedious. However, a book that is worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Caesar didn't live up to my expectations. I found it hard going. Goldsworthy refashions dramatic events into basic facts. A biography of Caesar should be lively and transport the reader to a world rich in detail that brings it alive. There are occasional glimmers.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
This is a fairly monumental life of Caesar, weighing in at over 500 pages of small text in hardback. It is extremely well researched and surely offers the most detailed and balanced assessment of the life of this political and military giant that we are ever likely to possess, given that, notwithstanding the fact that Republican Rome in the 1st century BC is one of the most documented eras of the pre-technological world, there is still much that we do not know about Caesar the man, particularly his early life and his ultimate motivations. I did get rather bogged down in the endless military manoeuvres, especially during the Gallic wars, and found this very hardgoing in places, but then descriptions of the actual fighting have always been my least favourite aspect of military history. Excellent biography.… (more)
LibraryThing member neobardling
Goldsworthy takes a Livian minutiae approach to his biography of Julius Caesar!
LibraryThing member Miro
In his introduction Goldsworthy says that, "Unlike those studying more recent history, ancient historians often have to make the best of limited and possibly unreliable sources, as well as balancing apparently contradictory accounts." In my opinion he does this very successfully in a readable book that doesn't try to present academic disputes.

The basic outlines are clear with one paragraph in the introduction opening with the sentence, "Ceasar was a great man", and another opening with the sentence, "Caesar was not a moral man....", the two sides of his character being amply illustrated throughout the 23 chapters. Goldsworthy gives cognisance to the fact that the 1st century B.C. Roman Republic were not moral times and that ancient history needs to be judged in its own context, for example Roman pride in "virtu" (which could be expressed by conquering weak neighbours) or the mass entertainment of gladiatorial combat. Ceasar was a famous philanderer of the aristocratic wives of Rome which caused him some obvious difficulties, and he could bribe his way through politics and ally himself with armed gangs as well as the best of them, finally breaking the Republic by crossing the Rubicon and imposing himself as dictator.

Militarily, he was as consistently successful as he had been with the Roman wives, conquering Gaul and eventually reaching the pinnacle of power that he had always sought through the defeat Pompey, his only credible rival in wealth, political influence and armed might. He combined cunning with aggressiveness, succeeding in subduing Gaul in good measure by his clemency and willingness to grant Roman rights, and it is notable that his well designed legislation continued to proved its worth under the subsequent rule of Augustus.

I found this a very rewarding and recommendable book (much better than Tom Holland's "Rubicon").
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LibraryThing member gmicksmith
This is a really outstanding read on Caesar. It covers his entire career in a complete but interesting fashion. The work is very engaging and balanced. Goldsworthy's claim to fame is as a military historian and although military affairs are well covered other important aspects of Caesar's life are fully credited as well. He evaluates the disputed accounts we have of Caesar's life and reliably places Caesar in historical context. This is a terrific one-volume biography of Caesar.… (more)
LibraryThing member glensing
I was surprised to see a very negative, one-star review of this book. I thought it was both interesting and well-written. In fact, I had trouble putting it done, and I was sorry to finish it. If the subject matter appeals to you at all, I think you are pretty much bound to enjoy this book.



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